There are 250,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel.
They are dying off at the rate of 30 individuals per day.
Tossing us these statistics, like bones to dogs, was how Myron Polenberg began his talk about the Indelible History Project (see my previous post for more general information on his project.)
“All I want to do is keep the numbers and the stories alive, so that all these people will be remembered…it’s a humanities issue not a Jewish issue. Nothing to do with sex, nothing to do with gender, it’s a humanities issue and the human spirit.”
He trusts living limbs more than he trusts historians, citing Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, where thousands of survivors recorded their stories, as an example of this archival failure.
“I want it to be in your face, as a living piece of art.”
When you sit with a survivor, he said, most of whom were children when they were pushed into the ghetto and stripped of their humanity, when they were taken to the camps, they want to prove to you that they beat Hitler.
“They’ll take you through the Holocaust experience and into the stories about how successfully they lived their life…those are the stories I want to keep alive because I think they are really hopeful, beyond surviving the camps.”
So he’s linking up survivors with young people. Having the young person inherit the tattoo along with the memories. He’s hoping the young person will live the commitment they made; that she or he won’t clutter up their arm with any other markings.
Myron recalled his parents’ friends hiding tattoos beneath thick wool sleeves, constantly yanking down this evidence. These people made a huge impression on him and today he stands in his Hudson studio, intent on persuading the younger students among us to sign up.
My notes include some of the probing questions and negative responses from our oral history group. Josephine called it “gimmicky.” Alex said it’s too weighty and serious a project, with huge ethical implications, and there’s a danger that it will be easily trivialized.
“There’s a whole layer of explanation you have to do when you take on this kind of a project,” she said. “So you don’t re-traumatize the survivor or even the young person.”
She didn’t think the artist adequately addressed this issue.
Some of my concerns–mostly about objectification of the young people–were discussed in my last blog. My ambivalence remains: am I supportive or not supportive of his project? Wary, cautious, sceptical, suspicious; haunted, impressed, reflective, moved. Regardless, it was generous of Polenberg to welcome us into his studio.
And the last word will go to Jeanne, once we left the studio and returned to our classroom to talk about ethics and trauma and the art of oral history.
“I’m always interested, she quietly said, in how big an ego can get in such a small studio.”